Obviously, everybody loves a successful character, and successful series will generally continue until they cease being successful, but I've been noticing a distinct trend lately in the subgenre of books that can be called "urban fantasy"--by which I mean that just-sliding-out-of-romance subgenre (indeed, many of the series may be in the romance or sci-fi/fantasy sections of bookstores depending on which chain you're in) taking place in modern times with supernatural creatures. Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books were the first ones, I think, to really take off, but there are scores upon scores of imitators, successors, and variations on a theme: Jim Butcher's "The Dresden Files," Kim Harrison "The Hollows" series, Laura Anne Gilman's "Retrievers" books, MaryJanice Davidson's "Queen Betsy" series...by now you either know what I mean or you don't read the genre.
Thursday, I was reading the second "Retrievers" book, Curse the Dark, and it hit me. For the first half of the book, it was excellent. Good plot, hints of continuing metaplot, strong characters working through their personal issues from their own perspectives. Then, in the second half of the book, it all fell apart with a whoomp, and I finally put into words what it was that bugs me about the genre as a whole.
The Metaplot Ate The Story.
Metaplot is inevitable in these things. It's like The X-Files, you may come for the episodes, but you stay for the metastory that is spooled out, bit by bit, until the show gets cancelled and nothing ever gets explained.
(Which, by the way, is inevitable. Metaplot is never explained. Metaplot does not exist to BE explained. If metaplot ever came to an end, there would be no more series. And there is never No More Series until the last installment fails to generate enough revenue for the network or the publisher to care, and the networks and publishers are never, out of the kindness of their hearts towards the people who have dumped so much of their time and cash into the franchise over the years, going to bring everyone back for one last intentional go-round. Sitcoms have better, more conclusive endings than sci-fi/fantasy series with metaplot. Babylon 5, I'm glaring at YOU!)
The problem is this. In a TV series, you get 22 or so episodes a year. In an urban fantasy book series, you get one. 300-500 pages of story, and that's it. There is a real need, regardless of the amount of metaplot in the novel, that there be a beginning, a middle, and an end (The Dresden Files are really good at this, through eight books).
In the old days, of course, stories followed one of two patterns: individual novels, trilogies, or otherwise limited series that actually began and ended, telling a complete story; or instead there would be ongoing series with iconic characters that never changed, grew, or developed (Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Ellery Queen, The Shadow, Hercule Poirot, The Lone Ranger, you get the idea). But nowadays, the urban-fantasy genre presents ongoing series (without a preordained beginning, middle, and end) that do involve changes in their characters' lives and circumstances.
The problem is that, we're treated to so much metaplot that very often the concept that each novel needs to be an individual book is washed aside. Instead we get something not unlike an episode of a soap opera, where there's no real story, but just the next installments of what happens. For example, there's been a lot of ranting online that Laurell Hamilton's books have stopped being urban fantasy novels and turned into bad softcore porn. Well, that's true, but it fails to identify the real problem with the books, which is that right about that time they also stopped having actual plots. Instead, each installment might as well have been titled "The Next Week In The Life of Anita Blake." Not surprisingly, I stopped reading the things.
Now, I understand and accept that I'll never, ever get All The Answers (see above). None of these series is going to end with "And they lived happily ever after." But is it so much to ask that the particular book I happen to be reading at the time actually have a main plot of its own, and that while metaplot questions may be raised and left unanswered, that the internal, individual story have a beginning, middle, and end. Heck, even the mythology episodes of The X-Files would wrap up the immediate issues at hand even while driving the metaplot onwards? Am I just expecting too much to buy a book and get an actual story, not just the really long chapter the author thought of next?
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